'Nudge unit' urges use of smokeless cigarettes

Man smoking Tobacco smoke contains harmful toxins and carcinogens

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Encouraging smokers to switch to smokeless "fake" cigarettes could save tens of thousands of lives, according to a government-backed report.

The idea comes from the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team - or "nudge unit" as it has been called.

It also says making people write "This is an honest account of the truth" on insurance claims forms could cut fraud.

But critics of the unit's activities have suggested there is little evidence that such "nudges" actually work.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was set up in July 2010, based around the ideas of two academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who believe that bad choices and laziness are a large part of what makes people human.

Therefore, they argue that instead of appealing to voters' self-interest, by for example urging people to eat more healthily, politicians must help to make the "right" choices "easier to make.

Drinking and debt

In its first annual report, the BIT said the government should promote the use of "safe" alternatives to cigarettes - products which deliver nicotine in a fine, pure vapour, instead of in harmful smoke which also contains toxins and carcinogens.

However, versions of smoke-free cigarettes are currently illegal in a number of countries, including Canada and Brazil, because their potential side-effects have not been fully investigated.

In the UK, medicines regulators have actively discouraged the development, marketing and promotion of cigarette substitutes containing nicotine because it is addictive, but they are now looking into approving such devices for use.

The BIT report also listed a number of other proposals in a range of policy areas - some of which are already being trialled - including:

  • making drinkers more aware of how much alcohol others consume - on the basis that most people overestimate how much others drink
  • removing alcohol from prominent positions at the front of supermarkets - Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose have already done so
  • redesigning hospital prescription charts to cut down on errors due to incorrect completion and bad handwriting
  • providing upfront rewards like shopping vouchers or council tax holidays to encourage household energy efficiency improvements - rafter than stressing the longer-term gains to be made
  • altering letters to tax debtors to inform them that the majority of people in their area have already paid up and reminding them of the link between tax and local services - trials showed a 15% improvement in response rates
  • placing declarations of honesty at the start of forms, not the end, to "prime" respondents to tell the truth, or requiring them to write out, by hand, an "honesty sentence"

Some MPs and peers have criticised the cost of the BIT - which is more than £500,000 a year - and its potential effectiveness.

Its head, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, told the Lords science committee earlier this year that its ideas were not guaranteed to work, but said it was worth trying as the moves suggested were "pretty cost-free".

His comments came after a critical National Audit Office report in February which said the BIT had failed to convince a single government department to use its ideas.

The government said it agreed there were "few circumstances in which nudging alone is likely to be sufficient", but in addition to rules and regulations, "we have rightly been thinking about how we can encourage people to lead healthier lives through the application of behavioural insights and other non-regulatory instruments".

The annual report suggests that hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved if all its suggested measures are adopted.

In the case of unpaid tax, it estimates that sending amended letters to all self-assessment customers would free collectors up to chase an extra £30m in unpaid Exchequer revenue each year.

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